Richard Eyre's film is a straightforward drama of both the final and early courtship stages of the marriage between famed British novelist and intellectual Iris Murdoch and John Bayley. The prime, mildly unusual element, perhaps, is the alternation between two time periods, the principal scenes showing their relationship in old age as Murdoch is ravaged by Alzheimer's disease, the rest shown in flashbacks to the days in which they first met and their romance flowered. Since it's cinematically conventional, if highly accomplished, the film relies upon its acting to lift it above the ordinary, and on that count it does deliver. Jim Broadbent was justly acclaimed for his portrayal of the older Bayley, befuddled and taxed by his wife's decline, occasionally even prone to anger, but never flagging in his love, even when her verbal coherence has all but disappeared. Just as good, however, are the performances by Judi Dench as the older Murdoch (convincingly changing from esteemed, erudite literary icon to the nearly helpless and witless) and Hugh Bonneville as the stuttering, inexperienced younger Bayley, his reticence overcome by his infatuation with Murdoch. This isn't the place to learn much about Murdoch's writing; the narratives occur in the periods around the publication of her first and last books, with nothing on the intervening decades. There are her many books for that if you want to investigate further, of course, and Iris is not so much a docudrama of a life as a sympathetic but realistic look at the final stages of a marriage ended by tragic illness, as well as the struggle for dignity in the face of inevitable loss and death.
by Richie Unterberger review